Tag Archives: feminism 101

Group of male-type and female-type body symbols, 8 male, 2 female

Re-post: How To Exclude Women Without Really Trying

During December and January, Geek Feminism is republishing some of our 2012 posts for the benefit of new and existing readers. This post originally appeared on September 17, 2012.

An earlier version of this post appears on Tim’s blog.

Excluding by inclusion

This year’s “Future of Haskell” discussion, which traditionally ends the annual Haskell Symposium, stumbled into the question of gender equity, via the perennial question of how to increase the number of Haskell programmers. Many programmers (of all genders) find math intimidating and think that the Haskell programming language requires more mathematical skill than other popular languages. In the discussion, Doaitse Swierstra, a professor of computer science at the University of Utrecht, suggested that a good way to increase the number of Haskell programmers would be to recruit one woman for every man in the room. So far, so good: in fact, Prof. Swierstra showed creativity by introducing the problem of gender inequity at this point in the discussion. But then he went on to say that if this goal were achieved, it would make the meetings more “attractive”.

Speaking as someone who attended functional programming conferences for ten years, the field of programming language (PL) research in general is particularly male-dominated even by computer science standards. Also anecdotally, functional programming is an even more male-dominated sub-field within PL research. I would sometimes play a game during conference talks where I would count the number of men with long hair, and the number of women, in the room. There were always more long-haired men than women. I can’t know what someone’s gender is by looking at them (as I well know, since before 2007 most people who looked at me would have thought I counted as one of those women). Still, even with a very generous estimate as to how many people who appeared to be men may actually have been trans women or genderqueer people, the conferences would still have had a gender balance that doesn’t reflect the underlying population, or even the gender balance in computer science or software as a whole. Even the field of mathematics is less male-dominated than functional programming research, so the excuse that PL people are blameless and the numbers result from discouragement of girls learning math at the primary and secondary educational levels does not explain the imbalance.

Prof. Swierstra does get credit for recognizing that there is a problem. And I don’t doubt that by making the comments he made, he intended to encourage the inclusion of women, not exclusion. (You can listen to the relevant part of the discussion yourself—the link goes directly to 32:00 in the video. Apologizes in advance to those who are hard of hearing; I didn’t want to attempt a transcript beyond what I already paraphrased, since I wasn’t totally sure about all of it.)

Even so, Swierstra’s remark provides a great example of how it’s not the intent behind what you say that matters, but rather, the effect that your words have. By following a call for more women in the room with a comment about his opinion of women’s greater attractiveness relative to men, he completely undermined his own attempt to encourage equality, whether or not that was his intent. If you accidentally run a person over with your car, not having intended to hurt them doesn’t make them less dead. And if you make an objectifying comment that tells women their value at an academic conference is as decoration, not having intended to send that message doesn’t make those women feel any more welcome. (While accidental killings are punished less harshly than deliberate ones, the analogy stops holding at that point, since no one wants to punish people for accidentally making sexist comments, only to ask them to reflect and learn so they don’t make such comments in the future.)
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Photograph of a sky-written question mark by Dennis Hill

Ask a Geek Feminist, round 7

Welcome to round 7 of Ask a Geek Feminist! How it works:

  • if you’ve got a question you think a geek feminist could answer, post a comment in reply to this post. (Comments will not be publicly visible.)
  • about a week from now I’ll distribute questions to my co-bloggers and they can make a post with an answer to a question as they like
  • about a week after that I’ll choose some of the remaining questions and open them up to our commenters

Your question, if it appears in a post, will be quoted (possibly edited for length) but not attributed to you, unless you ask us to attribute it. Since we’re not making them publicly visible, questions can be about anything you like; however obviously if you stray too far from our comment policy the chances of ever seeing an answer are pretty slim. Check out previous posts answering questions to see how this worked before.

Questions do not have to be about feminism or or obviously feminist topics: they could be about geeky interests including pop culture, about careers, about social life and so on. Given the name of this blog though, feminism might appear in the answer…

If you have a 101 (introductory) questions about feminism we suggest that:

  • you’ve looked over Finally Feminism 101’s FAQs and the Geek Feminism wiki’s 101 page to see if you can get an answer there first; and
  • you explain why you want a geek feminist, in particular, to answer this question. Do you think there’s a particular geek slant on this we might have or that our readers might like to discuss? The series is intended to produce interesting things for our community to think about and talk about, as well as an answer for the questioner.

If your question boils down to “why are there so few women in science/computer science/mathematics/engineering/physics, and what should we do?”, we’re unlikely to answer, please see this list of resources to turn to.

Questions will be accepted until comments on this post close in about a fortnight. (I don’t want to accept them constantly, because of the work of anonymising them.) If you miss out and find comments have already closed, another round will run within about six months… You can also ask questions non-anonymously in Open threads, although they may not be promoted to the front page.

Group of male-type and female-type body symbols, 8 male, 2 female

How To Exclude Women Without Really Trying

An earlier version of this post appears on Tim’s blog.

Excluding by inclusion

This year’s “Future of Haskell” discussion, which traditionally ends the annual Haskell Symposium, stumbled into the question of gender equity, via the perennial question of how to increase the number of Haskell programmers. Many programmers (of all genders) find math intimidating and think that the Haskell programming language requires more mathematical skill than other popular languages. In the discussion, Doaitse Swierstra, a professor of computer science at the University of Utrecht, suggested that a good way to increase the number of Haskell programmers would be to recruit one woman for every man in the room. So far, so good: in fact, Prof. Swierstra showed creativity by introducing the problem of gender inequity at this point in the discussion. But then he went on to say that if this goal were achieved, it would make the meetings more “attractive”.

Speaking as someone who attended functional programming conferences for ten years, the field of programming language (PL) research in general is particularly male-dominated even by computer science standards. Also anecdotally, functional programming is an even more male-dominated sub-field within PL research. I would sometimes play a game during conference talks where I would count the number of men with long hair, and the number of women, in the room. There were always more long-haired men than women. I can’t know what someone’s gender is by looking at them (as I well know, since before 2007 most people who looked at me would have thought I counted as one of those women). Still, even with a very generous estimate as to how many people who appeared to be men may actually have been trans women or genderqueer people, the conferences would still have had a gender balance that doesn’t reflect the underlying population, or even the gender balance in computer science or software as a whole. Even the field of mathematics is less male-dominated than functional programming research, so the excuse that PL people are blameless and the numbers result from discouragement of girls learning math at the primary and secondary educational levels does not explain the imbalance.

Prof. Swierstra does get credit for recognizing that there is a problem. And I don’t doubt that by making the comments he made, he intended to encourage the inclusion of women, not exclusion. (You can listen to the relevant part of the discussion yourself—the link goes directly to 32:00 in the video. Apologizes in advance to those who are hard of hearing; I didn’t want to attempt a transcript beyond what I already paraphrased, since I wasn’t totally sure about all of it.)

Even so, Swierstra’s remark provides a great example of how it’s not the intent behind what you say that matters, but rather, the effect that your words have. By following a call for more women in the room with a comment about his opinion of women’s greater attractiveness relative to men, he completely undermined his own attempt to encourage equality, whether or not that was his intent. If you accidentally run a person over with your car, not having intended to hurt them doesn’t make them less dead. And if you make an objectifying comment that tells women their value at an academic conference is as decoration, not having intended to send that message doesn’t make those women feel any more welcome. (While accidental killings are punished less harshly than deliberate ones, the analogy stops holding at that point, since no one wants to punish people for accidentally making sexist comments, only to ask them to reflect and learn so they don’t make such comments in the future.)
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Ask a Geek Feminist, round 6

Welcome to round 6 of Ask a Geek Feminist! How it works:

  • if you’ve got a question you think a geek feminist could answer, post a comment in reply to this post. (Comments will not be publicly visible.)
  • about a week from now I’ll distribute questions to my co-bloggers and they can make a post with an answer to a question as they like
  • about a week after that I’ll choose some of the remaining questions and open them up to our commenters

Your question, if it appears in a post, will be quoted (possibly edited for length) but not attributed to you, unless you ask us to attribute it. Since we’re not making them publicly visible, questions can be about anything you like; however obviously if you stray too far from our comment policy the chances of ever seeing an answer are pretty slim. Check out previous posts answering questions to see how this worked before.

Questions do not have to be about feminism or or obviously feminist topics: they could be about geeky interests including pop culture, about careers, about social life and so on. Given the name of this blog though, feminism might appear in the answer…

If you have a 101 (introductory) questions about feminism we suggest that:

  • you’ve looked over Finally Feminism 101’s FAQs and the Geek Feminism wiki’s 101 page to see if you can get an answer there first; and
  • you explain why you want a geek feminist, in particular, to answer this question. Do you think there’s a particular geek slant on this we might have or that our readers might like to discuss? The series is intended to produce interesting things for our community to think about and talk about, as well as an answer for the questioner.

If your question boils down to “why are there so few women in science/computer science/mathematics/engineering/physics, and what should we do?”, we’re unlikely to answer, please see this list of resources to turn to.

Questions will be accepted until comments on this post close in about a fortnight. (I don’t want to accept them constantly, because of the work of anonymising them.) If you miss out and find comments have already closed, another round will run within about six months… You can also ask questions non-anonymously in Open threads, although they may not be promoted to the front page.

Angry woman covered in dark paint, wearing a shirt reading 'freedom'

Re-post: “Why don’t you just hit him?”

During the December/January slowdown, Geek Feminism is re-publishing some of our highlights from earlier in the year. This post originally appeared on December 7, 2010.

Warning: this post and links from it discuss both harassment and violence, imagined and real.

Valerie has had a lot of comments and private email in response to her conference anti-harassment policy suggesting that a great deal of the problem would be solved if women were encouraged to hit their harassers: usually people suggest an open handed slap, a knee to groin, or even tasers and mace (no suggestions for tear gas or rubber bullets yet). I sent her such a lengthy email about it that we agreed that I clearly at some level wanted to post about it. What can I do but obey my muse?

OK. Folks…

This is not one of those entries I am thrilled in my soul to have to write, but here’s why “hit him!” is not a solution for everyone and definitely does not replace the need for people with authority to take a stand against harassment.

And I know some people were joking. But not everyone was, you’ll need to trust me on this. Your “jeez, guys like that are lucky they don’t get a knee in the groin more often… hey wait, maybe you should just have a Knee In Groin Policy!” joke was appearing in inboxes right alongside material seriously saying that all of this policy nonsense wouldn’t be necessary if women were just brave and defended themselves properly, if they’d just for once get it right.

Here are some samples:

  • Duncan on LWN: What I kept thinking while reading the original article, especially about the physical assaults, is that it was too bad the victims in question weren’t carrying Mace, pepper-spray, etc, and wasn’t afraid to use it. A couple incidents of that and one would think the problem would disappear…
  • NAR on LWN: I’ve read the blog about the assault – it’s absolutely [appalling] and in my opinion the guy deserved a knee to his groin and some time behind bars. (NAR then goes on to note that women should also wear skirts below the knee; which is very much making it about the victim. Dress right! Fight back!)
  • A comment on Geek Feminism that was not published: …you also need to make it known to women that they need to immediately retaliate (preferably in the form of a slap loud enough for everyone in the vicinity to hear)… Women -must- stand up for themselves and report the guy, preferably after a loud humiliating slap immediately following the incident.
  • crusoe on reddit: You need to end right then and there. Its one thing to make blog posts, its another to call a jerk out for it on the conference floor, including stomping a toe, or poking them hard in the belly… Do not stew about it, do not run home and write a blog post about it. Just call them on it right then and there. (As long as crusoe doesn’t have to hear about it…)

First up, one key thing about this and many similar responses (“just ignore him”, “just spread the word”, “just yell at him”):

Harassment is not a private matter between harasser and victim, and it’s not the victim’s job to put a stop to it.

The harasser is responsible for their actions. The surrounding culture is responsible for condemning them and making it clear those actions and expressions of attitudes that underlie them are not acceptable. (See Rape Culture 101.) The victim may choose to go to the police, yell, hit, scream, confront, go to a counsellor, tell their mother, tell their father, tell their friends, warn people. They may choose not to. Whether they do or not, we are all responsible for making harassment unacceptable where we are. Harassment, and stopping it, is not the victim’s responsibility. (See But You Have to Report It!)

Am I against hitting a harasser in all situations? No. Am I advocating against it in all situations? No.

However, here’s a lengthy and incomplete list of reasons why victims may not be able or may choose not to hit a harasser and why it is definitely not a general solution for the problem of harassment. I even have a special buzzer on hand that will sound when the reasons are related to gender discrimination. Listen for it, it goes like this: BZZZT! Got it? BZZZT!
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Feminist license plates, by Liz Henry CC BY-SA 2.0

They’re trying hard, or they’re angry: talking about feminism, outreach and gender equality

These are Ask a Geek Feminist questions for our readers.

They’re not the same question, but I put them together because they’re related. If you want to distinguish them in comments, call them Q1 and Q2.

Q1 is a question about what to do when an individual or group is trying hard to be gender-inclusive, you want to make some smaller suggestions but don’t want them to respond with “well, that was all a waste of time then, we may as well not bother if we try and then get criticised!”

Around me, i see a number of people concerned about including more women in their geeky meetings, or in the geek crowd at large. Each time i see an effort in that sense, and maybe because i have been reading this blog for so long, i notice little things that make me say “it would have been good, only if…”

One example is my hackerspace. In the attempt of organizing a more women-friendly event, someone posted a link to a blog post. In the blog post, i found sensible things, as well as links to yours and linux’s wikis on how to make your geek event more women friendly. Among the recommendations, i found the idea to “Emphasise non-coding” because “It is more likely that women have studied or have experience in design or other non-coding skill sets.” And i felt that something was wrong with that. Is it just me being picky? Should i say something to the group about that (along the lines of “the post is great but… the bit about women not coding doesn’t seem to make sense to me”) or should i just let it go, because i’m obviously not an expert, and it will probably work and attract more women to follow those guidelines. And i’m just being picky and negative when thinking those negative details.

Another example. I have a friend who is always saying that there should be more women in computers/hacking communities. He is a very interesting guy, and we share common interests, but i can’t help to feel like an “exception” as a female geek when talking to him. He is the kind to always do the reverse of points 3.9, 3.13, 3.14 in Don’t complain about the lack of women in computing. And i don’t know how to explain well that to him, since all conversations about “theories” end up in him saying “i’m too tired to think that much” (or something along those lines)… So how important is it that i try to express myself on such details? Is it worth it? Should i just spare my time and try to act more (code/hack…)? Those are not “acts against women” per se, no sexist jokes, no aggression… and I’m not sure what would benefit more in the end…

Q2 is trying to have discussions with a more actively hostile party, someone who doesn’t want to discuss feminism within its own framework at all:

A good friend of mine (white male) is usually a very good, attentive discussion partner. But he has a tendency to shut down completely on a conversation when I start using what he terms “victim’s rhetoric”. As far as I understand his term, he means that minorities (LGBT people, feminists) are prone to ‘complaining’ without offering constructive suggestions for change. I try to explain that I’m not complaining when I’m trying to throw light on the ways in which kyriarchy affects mine and other women’s lives, for example in the pervasive media stereotypes. I feel like he derails the conversation by asking me to present him with ‘solutions’ rather than ‘complaints’. Are my feelings unjustified? How do I come back once he’s played the “rhetoric” card?

Feminist license plates, by Liz Henry CC BY-SA 2.0

Diversity: uses thereof

This is an Ask a Geek Feminist question for our readers:

Outside of being a measurement for the presence of oppression, why is diversity a good thing?

In a post several weeks ago a geek feminist made reference to the ideology that companies (particularly in STEM fields) these days feel a bit “embarrassed” by the lack of diversity in their labs, and that by attempting to correct the problem for reasons of not being embarrassed they proved them selves not to “get it” when it came to WHY diversity is something they should strive for. Upon reading this it dawned on me, why IS diversity a good thing?

Obviously the measure of diversity is a good marker for the amount of discouragement marginalized people may be experiencing in particular fields, since there are reasons other than direct oppression involved when a person chooses a career path (i.e. women are encouraged to play with dolls and not soldering irons, black kids are encouraged to play football and basketball and not chess, etc). But it has recently appear to me that other than as a level of measurement, I have NO idea why diversity is by default and in and of itself, a “good thing”.

Is there ever a situation where the stats simply express a tendency devoid of enculturation? (do most boys just not want to be interior decorators? Do most girls not want to be physicists?). I fully acknowledge that obviously women among other “minority” groups have been bared from participating in such endeavors and as such have historically had their interests “shaped” away from what was considered “men’s work”, but I am very curious, should we be trying to “enforce” rather than “enable” equal gender representation for reasons outside of removing oppression?

I’m not certain, but the reference to the post “several weeks ago” (this question dates from early June) may be a reference to my post When your advertising is more diverse than you are, in which I wrote:

For that matter, what do you want diversity for? For all that I and other people who write here really want diversity to be a concern for geekdom, I think having it as solely a checklist thing is a disservice to the people who will comprise the diversity. What are you offering those people? What are they offering you? Is it all one way? Is this about avoiding negative publicity or something more?

Ask a Geek Feminist, round 5

Welcome to round 5 of Ask a Geek Feminist! How it works:

  • if you’ve got a question you think a geek feminist could answer, post a comment in reply to this post. (Comments will not be publicly visible.)
  • about a week from now I’ll distribute questions to my co-bloggers and they can make a post with an answer to a question as they like
  • about a week after that I’ll choose some of the remaining questions and open them up to our commenters

Your question, if it appears in a post, will be quoted (possibly edited for length) but not attributed to you, unless you ask us to attribute it. Since we’re not making them publicly visible, questions can be about anything you like; however obviously if you stray too far from our comment policy the chances of ever seeing an answer are pretty slim. Check out previous posts answering questions to see how this worked before.

Questions do not have to be about feminism or or obviously feminist topics: they could be about geeky interests including pop culture, about careers, about social life and so on. Given the name of this blog though, feminism might appear in the answer…

If you have a 101 (introductory) questions about feminism we suggest that:

  • you’ve looked over Finally Feminism 101’s FAQs and the Geek Feminism wiki’s 101 page to see if you can get an answer there first; and
  • you explain why you want a geek feminist, in particular, to answer this question. Do you think there’s a particular geek slant on this we might have or that our readers might like to discuss? The series is intended to produce interesting things for our community to think about and talk about, as well as an answer for the questioner.

If your question boils down to “why are there so few women in science/computer science/mathematics/engineering/physics, and what should we do?”, we’re unlikely to answer, please see this list of resources to turn to.

Questions will be accepted until comments on this post close in about a fortnight. (I don’t want to accept them constantly, because of the work of anonymising them.) If you miss out and find comments have already closed, another round will run within about six months… You can also ask questions non-anonymously in Open threads, although they may not be promoted to the front page.

Ask a Geek Feminist, round 4

Welcome to round 4 of Ask a Geek Feminist! How it works:

  • if you’ve got a question you think a geek feminist could answer, post a comment in reply to this post. (Comments will not be publicly visible.)
  • about a week from now I’ll distribute questions to my co-bloggers and they can make a post with an answer to a question as they like
  • about a week after that I’ll choose some of the remaining questions and open them up to our commenters

Your question, if it appears in a post, will be quoted (possibly edited for length) but not attributed to you, unless you ask us to attribute it. Since we’re not making them publicly visible, questions can be about anything you like; however obviously if you stray too far from our comment policy the chances of ever seeing an answer are pretty slim. Check out previous posts answering questions to see how this worked before.

Questions do not have to be about feminism or or obviously feminist topics: they could be about geeky interests, about careers, about social life and so on. Given the name of this blog though, feminism might appear in the answer…

If you have a 101 (introductory) questions about feminism we suggest that:

  • you’ve looked over Finally Feminism 101’s FAQs and the Geek Feminism wiki’s 101 page to see if you can get an answer there first; and
  • you explain why you want a geek feminist, in particular, to answer this question. Do you think there’s a particular geek slant on this we might have or that our readers might like to discuss? The series is intended to produce interesting things for our community to think about and talk about, as well as an answer for the questioner.

If your question boils down to “why are there so few women in science/computer science/mathematics/engineering/physics, and what should we do?”, we’re unlikely to answer, please see this list of resources to turn to.

Questions will be accepted until comments on this post close in about a fortnight. (I don’t want to accept them constantly, because of the work of anonymising them.) If you miss out and find comments have already closed, another round will run later in 2011. You can also ask questions non-anonymously in Open threads, although they may not be promoted to the front page.

Re-post: When you are the expert in the room

In anticipation of a December/January slowdown, I’m reposting some of my writing from 2010, for the benefit of new (and nostalgic!) readers. This piece originally appeared on the 4th October 2010.

This is an Ask a Geek Feminist question:

This a “what should we do” question, but a fairly specific one.

Recent discussions, particularly Restore meritocracy in CS using an obscure functional language , have left me thinking “this still doesn’t say what it would be helpful for people like me (white male with computing experience starting early) to actually do about it”. Just saying to avoid the viewpoint that this reflects enthusiasm or innate ability isn’t very specific, but the discussion seemed to finish around that point.

The answers will probably be different in different contexts. For example, how about in class? The best I can think of is “don’t be eager to answer the lecturer’s questions to the class, but let someone else go first”. Would that help? Is that enough, in that context? But if you give the lecturer the impression you’re not knowledgeable, but then do well in the written exam, you can invite suspicion of cheating in the exam (this definitely happens). Or should you even make deliberate wrong answers, to lower your apparent expertise? I’d find that horribly condescending if I knew someone was doing it towards me.

And in a professional context, if you know the answer to a colleague’s question (or on a mailing list, to any question), but you hold back on it to let someone else answer, you’re holding back the asker from getting on with whatever raised the question. But is that less important than letting others answer? (I suspect it depends on the group or list concerned.)

And a branch of that one, relevant in my present job, in which part of my role in the team is specifically to be the experienced programmer who can answer people’s questions, how is it best to handle that?

And in a seminar, should you hold back in a discussion if you have advanced ideas, so as not to scare the less confident? But then, you’re not making your best technical contribution.

The most extreme suggestion I’ve seen (only once, I think) is that geeky men should get out of computing altogether, to make it more comfortable for others to get in. In which case, a big source of potential mentors would be lost.

And do the same suggestions apply to female experts?

So, I’m stumped on this and can’t contribute any significant answers, but I hope the questions are useful for discussion.

There was some discussion among the cob-loggers about whether and how to answer this question. But there was always lots of confusion about this on the LinuxChix lists while I was subscribed (I haven’t been for a few years now), men who genuinely wanted to in some way to address gender issues in computing but the only strength they saw in themselves was their expertise, and when it was suggested to them that displaying this at every opportunity was at best annoying and at worst harmful they were completely at a loss. So I think an answer is genuinely useful.

Important note: this answer is aimed at privileged people (in this context, generally men with a good technical background) hoping to check their privilege and keep it on a short leash. If you are a woman reading this, it’s entirely possible the reverse applies to you in geeky environments: you might be wanting to learn how to have more confidence in your expertise and how to inspire confidence in others. Some of these techniques might be useful to you at some times when you want to help others learn, but this answer isn’t really intended for you.

Important note 2: from here on, “you” refers to the general you, the person who want to encourage/support/etc women but is struggling to see how to do it without being dishonest about your own abilities, not necessarily “you” the person who asked this specific question. I’ve seen this a lot, so I want to try and address it in general. I’m generally going to assume that the relative expertise of the question asker is in fact a correct assessment but you should question whether you are really the expert or whether you’re partly benefiting from structural assumptions that you are.

Let me start by stating that there are at best misguided versions of this question: people who say “I want to share my expertise with women who want to get into computing! But now I’m not supposed to be intimidating. Fine then, I’ll take my expertise and go home. See how you like that, women in computing! Ahahahaha!” Don’t be one of those people. Your participation in technical and geeky groups, especially groups for learners, isn’t solely about you. If you insist on either being the top dog expert or going home… go home.

My beta reader for this suggested that much of the question is based around the assumption that in order to help build people up, you have to drag yourself down. There’s two problems with this: one is that this sort of thing isn’t a zero sum game, and the other is that not all women (or outsiders in general) are also beginners. They may be intimidated in spite of substantial ability and experience. So in many cases your role is less to try and hide your own excessive light under a bushel, and more to support the discovery of what’s already there.

When you’re the expert at work

In terms of your workplace, an approach I like is one that some activist groups make explicit: if you are the only person who knows how to do something that the organisation needs, you should make it your top priority to train at least one other person to do it. You could do some of the following:

  • presumably part of your role as designated expert, or something that you can make part of your role, is keeping a sort of list (mental or physical) of areas of expertise other programmers have, and referring questions to the other experts.
  • if something should be documented, ask the person who consults you if she can document it as she learns it. Then you can refer future questioners to that documentation, or get them to improve it. And you can credit its authors when you point people to it. And by having people teach others and write for others, you are turning them into experts.
  • if something should be automated (for example, you are consulting on a fiddly manual process) ask the person who consults you if she can automate it as she learns it.
  • when you get too busy (and this sounds like the sort of role where you are constantly in more demand than you can satisfy) decide that someone else needs to be the expert on some subset of the organisations knowledge base, and come up with some kind of handover process in collaboration with her, so that she is confident in being able to handle that set of problems and people know to go to her without even involving you.
  • consider that your own expertise is unlikely to be all-encompassing. If there’s a task that takes you half a day and a colleague half an hour, ask her for her help with it. (No need to go on and on about how she’s the expert here yay for her, just get her help.)

Note that those aren’t specific to women colleagues despite my choice of pronoun. The idea is to change the environment such that expertise is being built everywhere, not to go out of your way to make women into experts, unless you are in an environment specifically focussed on women (like LinuxChix is).

Similarly, in teaching roles, it is important to know when someone is thinking out loud on their way to the answer and when they are genuinely stumped and starting to get too frustrated to make progress. In the former case, just let them think and give them some time to put those thoughts into action.

When you’re the expert in class

Some of the question about classroom behaviour does seem a little excessively fearful. I guess there might be some classes that are structured as lectures and a final exam, but all my classes at university involved submitted assignments throughout the course in which you can demonstrate knowledge without taking up class time. A class in which people must ask questions to demonstrate their knowledge, as opposed to asking questions because they need the answer sounds like it must be terribly tedious for everyone involved. And they must be awfully small classes, or really long ones, if everyone who doesn’t regularly participate but still does well in the class is then investigated for cheating. In general, if you are required to demonstrate expertise solely in order to pass, see if you can do so in a way that isn’t public.

In terms of being part of classes or seminars, it is situation dependent. Is the class or seminar or discussion a bit introductory for you? Perhaps you should absent yourself or remain silent while the others get the hang of things, or at least wait for one-on-one approaches from other students for help rather than taking up teaching time demonstrating your knowledge. Is it genuinely challenging for you too? Well, make it visible that you’re being challenged. Be that wonderful person who asks the lecturer half way through the class “uh, I don’t think I really understood that first set of hypotheses, can we slow up?” when everyone else thought it was just them. Throw a few ideas against the wall before you think you have the answer. If someone else has a good idea, give them space to express it, thank them, and then see if you can extend it, especially in a collaborative way with the original proposer. Watch the tendency to try and set up a you-and-me-the-smart-ones dynamic with the teacher by speaking up only when you’re totally confident.

It may help periodically to actually try and measure (by making notes of who speaks when, assuming you can do it subtly) whether you are the most talkative person in the class. If you are, take a break from talking: it’s unlikely your ideas are so uniformly superior as to need that much airtime, and if they are, perhaps you need a more advanced class.

My beta reader also suggests that if you find a classroom is centred around you and other confident students and generally being a little self-congratulatory and that other students are floundering and suffering, that perhaps you should have a word to the teacher about how you feel the classroom environment is letting most of the students down.

When you’re the expert in a women-centred geek forum

In situations like mailing lists, at least places like LinuxChix which have a specific mission to be encouraging and a good place for learning, here’s some tips:

  • Have a look at the average turnaround time of the discussion. Is it common for someone to wait 24 hours to have a question answered? Well, people asking for help are probably aware that they may need to wait 24 hours (unless of course they say something like “ARGH HELP NOW DON’T DELAY FIRE FIRE FIRE IN THE THEATRE”). So make that your delay. Wait 24 hours (say), and see if they got a decent answer yet. If not, then post.
  • Very important: before you post an answer, read the other answers. It’s a common problem to have a self-appointed expert insist on re-explaining the whole thing from scratch, rather than seeing that Suzy already sorted out Jane’s compile error, so you just need to help Jane work out how to get the info she needs out of the core dump.
  • If an answer worked, but is missing a nuance, or isn’t precisely how you would have done it, consider carefully if you need to point that out. Is it actually harmful in the long run to do it the other suggested way or is it a matter of taste? Is this a good time and place to evangelise on matters of taste? It usually isn’t.

Note that none of this is denying your interest, expertise or talent: it’s not about pretending not to have it, it’s about genuinely putting it at the service of other people, and about developing similar expertise in other people.

I think it’s also important to interrogate your motivations in being the expert in women-centred groups. All of these approaches are not uncommon in tech groups with a lot of women:

  • assumptions that you, a man, must surely be the only expert in such-and-such who is part of the group, because, really, how likely is a woman to be a such-and-such expert? (There were certainly subscribers to the LinuxChix lists who believed that this was true of all of Linux systems administration, to the constant chagrin of women members who had spent 20 years in the field.)
  • assumptions that women geeks, unlike men geeks, will properly acknowledge you and respect you for your expertise, finally, the admiration you deserve!
  • the good ol’ not having enough women in your social circle thing, and being there to make friends.

The last one is tricky: here’s my take. Nothing wrong with having friends or wanting more! But, when you aren’t in a social group, attend to the mission of the group first, and the socialising a distant second.